Searching for Will Hunting behind the craps table
Thu, Jan 19, 2012 (midnight)
Photo: Sam Morris
“Five on chicken and eggs,” the man barks through his mustache, staring over mirrored aviators at the shooter’s hand. Looking every bit the Asian Burt Reynolds, he bets on the “hop,” the “horn” and the “hard ways” while I try to figure out if 7 is good or bad. Turns out it’s usually bad (to the point of being nicknamed the devil), lesson No. 1 from my very first game of craps. Burt’s bets are impressive if not always profitable, but I’m blown away by the dealer wrangling him and seven other players pushing chips on every roll of the dice. Why, I wonder, is a math genius working at a casino in the suburbs?
My Good Will Hunting theory crumbles as dealer after dealer works the felt. I can’t fathom how they’re tracking and paying out so many bets with so many variables so quickly while joking with the players and moving the stacks and the stick with practiced style. They’re the gaming equivalent of a Cuisinart. I figure the best way to discover their secrets is to go where craps dealers learn their craft—school for the stickman on the dice, the base dealers on either side and the boxman looking over all their shoulders.
On a Tuesday morning, the Crescent School of Gaming & Bartending looks like a miniature casino. Students of all descriptions are peeking behind the curtains of poker, blackjack, roulette, mini-baccarat and craps. Most games require six weeks of training on a schedule of five hours a day, five days a week. Craps takes eight weeks. The comprehensive Crescent package (which also includes carnival games and bartending) costs about $9,000, but the school’s accreditation by the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training and the U.S. Department of Education means students can apply for financial aid. Once enrolled, they have access to the school and its resources for life, and they graduate with the potential to earn six figures.
First, they have to get past Chuck Bowen.
“The first time I ever went on a craps game my knees were doing this,” he says, legs shaking. “I was lucky, because my hands weren’t.”
That was the break-in stage, when Bowen was a 29-year-old father of five looking to make quick cash. Now 72, he’s essentially a black belt in dice and has taught craps at Crescent for five years. He says there are more than 100 ways to bet the game but that managing its complexity comes down to basic math and procedure, procedure, procedure. Chips weave through his fingers with mechanical grace as he explains the difference between contracts and propositions, the bets you promise to leave on the table and the ones you can take back. Just as his muscles remember the motion, his mind is imprinted with odds and formulas for tallying payouts on the fly.
Take Burt’s “chicken and eggs.” His $5 was split on a one-roll bet on “any craps” (2, 3, 12) and 11. It’s a proposition wager, involving higher risks and higher rewards. With split odds of 7 to 1 and 15 to 1, let’s say he rolls 11. The payout is $2.50 times 15, minus the other half of the bet.
“Now, that’s the math you’ve got to do in your head. Not easy. But whenever you split money between those two numbers and the 11 rolls, all you have to do is multiply the bet by 7 and it will come out the same,” Bowen says, adding that if Burt rolls any craps the 7 changes to a 3. “We have keys like that for umpteen bets.”
He punctuates the sentence with the hard click of $150 in chips on a bet that pays out at 3 to 2.
- Expert Advice
- The pass line with full odds or the don’t pass line with a full lay are always good bets.
- The true odds bet is the best in the casino, because it’s the only one that equally favors the house and the player over time.
- Make proposition bets sparingly, unless you love a long shot.
- Learning how to be a good dealer doesn’t always translate to being a good player.
- Newbie dealers should work on the game’s artistry as well as its process.
- Getting hired is about attitude (60 percent), ability (30 percent) and appearance (10 percent). Casinos depend on their dealers to bring customers back.
“The easy way to figure it is, how much is there? Because 3 to 2 means you get three for every two you bet,” Bowen says. I stare. He chuckles, then divides the pile into two even stacks. “There are two $75s, so you get three $75s. But it’s easier stated as the bet plus half the bet. ... Your mind gets so it can handle a multitude of processes at once,” he says. “You get in the zone. It’s almost athletic.”
Many a craps “newbie” has been mentored by Bowen, and he says they all sweat through the first six months, literally leaving the rail wet from the pressure. But in 43 years, he says he has never dealt a day without some kind of mistake. That’s why there are four dealers on the crew constantly taking breaks and switching positions, ensuring that someone is catching and correcting flubs, usually before the players realize.
“They trust us explicitly,” Bowen says, “and we really have to live up to that trust.”
Bowen introduces 25-year-old Keshia Mitchell as his prize student. This is her last week of school, though she’s already two weeks into her first job as a dealer of craps and blackjack at a local casino. A former assistant manager at Blockbuster, she came to Crescent to pursue bartending, but the table sucked her in.
“I love math. That helped me. But before I came here I knew nothing about any of these games. I had never gambled. I still don’t gamble,” she says. “But the way Chuck broke it down to me, I caught onto it like that.”
Mitchell finished each segment of her training a week early, and the first audition she went on won her a job. That didn’t make her debut on the casino floor any less terrifying.
“It was just nerves, nerves running through me,” she says, admitting that breaking in comes with certain bruises. One night she got stuck on a bet, but another dealer covered the payout. Another time a player asked to take down his place bets, and she took down everyone’s place bets and gave him the pile. While she was sorting it out, up popped the devil, mercifully killing the game. “I’m trying to find my own way through it and find my own voice, just to get around the table,” Mitchell says, laughing at herself and praising the moral and technical support she gets from her crew. “Once you’ve been playing the game for so long, it’s going to get instilled inside of you. You’re never going to forget. When I’m 50 years old I’m still going to know the true odds.”
The most important thing to remember about odds, Bowen says, is that they favor the house. The math his students learn makes it plain which bets are long shots and which give players a decent chance at winning, at least in the short run.
“Overall on the average, the house wins money because the math is perfect. If we say we have a 1.4 percent edge on the pass line, we’re going to win pretty damn close to that,” he says. “Some players know how to cut that house advantage way down, but they can’t eliminate it.” And the bizarre handling rituals and throwing techniques? If you’re hoping to roll a pair, it’s 35 to 1, no matter who blows on the dice.
- Crescent School of Gaming & Bartending
- 4180 S. Sandhill Road, Suite B-8, 458-9910.
- Classes weekdays, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. or 5-10 p.m.
That’s why the vibe is so crucial to keeping players enjoying and rolling, though it wasn’t always.
“We were taught: Keep your head down and your mouth shut and just deal cards. Nowadays you’ve got to get involved with the customer; you’ve got to kid around and joke around. So we teach that—attitude,” says Richard “Mac” Mcdugald.
Mac was temporarily lured away from Vegas in 1993 by Crescent founders Ronnie and Ricky Richard. He helped them build a gaming division for their New Orleans-based bartending school, which expanded to Mississippi and Nevada. Mac was Crescent’s director of gaming education for almost 20 years, and the 69-year-old still teaches poker and roulette because he loves it. He knows craps, which Bowen believes is the most hirable game in the industry due to the scarcity of people willing to master it. Apparently, the intimidation goes both ways.
“It’s a real simple game if you approach it simply,” Mac says. “If you can add 2 and 2 in your head I can teach you the rest.”
After my day as a Crescent student, I want to believe him, but every time I think of someone else’s money on the line I wince. I just don’t think I could be fast enough and remember to smile. Bowen says that’s bull.
“One student, I taught him for two months and he still couldn’t get it. He kept coming in and coming in. About the end of the third month it just went blink,” he says, splaying his fingers like light from a bulb. “It starts coming on and it flickers, and then it stays on.”